Details of Mo Chaudry's Burslem pool row with council to 'stay secret'
EMAILS and letters between council officials and Mo Chaudry over the aborted Dimensions splash pool closure can remain secret forever.
Requests under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act for copies of all correspondence between the businessman, his representatives and Stoke-on-Trent City Council between 2007 and 2011 were turned down by the authority – even though it confirmed it does hold the records.
Now the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), which oversees public bodies' legal obligations under FOI, has sided with the council after being asked to intervene.
The council said it was exempt from releasing the information as publishing it would waive a confidentiality clause agreed with the WaterWorld owner when it paid him £21,850 to drop a legal threat.
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It relates to the council's botched plan in 2008 to close Dimensions splash pool in Burslem and the alleged secret deal to pay its main competitor WaterWorld to offer a discount instead.
City council monitoring officer Paul Hackney also ruled that 'disclosure of the information would be likely to prejudice the authority's ability to meet its wider objectives due to the disruption caused by disclosure, and the diversion of resources in managing the impact of disclosure.'
The ICO ruled the council had used the FOI Act's exemptions legally, meaning the documents can now remain permanently under lock and key.
Councillor Dave Conway, leader of the opposition City Independents, campaigned against the original Dimensions closure plan and fought for details behind the fiasco to be made public. He said: "This is public money. I can't understand how it isn't in the public interest to release it. There is a danger people will lose faith in the ICO because they've just gone along with the council."
The council used sections 36 and 42 of the act to keep the information secret.
It said it was exempt from releasing the information partly on the grounds that documents included confidential communications between lawyers.
The ICO agreed that breaching the confidentiality clause could give rise to a new legal challenge and that this means there is public interest in keeping it secret.
The ICO judgment states: "The council argues that, as mediation is a substantially less expensive alternative to litigation, there is a strong public interest in favour of maintaining the council's ability to use this process now and in the future. The commissioner accepts this is a valid argument."
Mr Chaudry claimed the council broke an agreement to shut the pool and pay WaterWorld £100,000-per-year to offer a discount.
The plans were scrapped after a public outcry and then-elected mayor Mark Meredith, a senior councillor and Mr Chaudry were arrested as part of a police corruption probe. Nobody was charged.
The council's settlement paid to Mr Chaudry followed a legal bill of £22,500. The council also apologised to the entrepreneur and acknowledged for the first time talks had taken place.
Mr Chaudry said: "I have never had any issue with information being made public because the basis of my challenge was that I wanted to clear my name. As far as I'm concerned the matter is done and dusted."